Publication Date: 6 August 2015
Format: Paperback, 384 pgs
This year has been a good reading year to me thus far. I'd read a few good thrillers that had me at the edge of my seat, and one or two romantic comedies which made me smile and experienced the joy of romancing through the characters. But a book that moved me tremendously? I Am China would be the book; and I've given it a 5-stars rating for the beautiful writing, the unforgettable story and the various emotions it evoked in me.
There are two modes of expression that bring thirty-one year old Iona Kirkpatrick to life - one is the sexual act (no worries, this is just a brief mention and there isn't explicit description here) and another is through words. The former merely offers her an escape while the latter allows her to regain something in her life and enable her to connect. As a teenager, she felt herself longing for foreign languages. Words became her world and though she'd once thought that she'd be a writer one day, it is translating works that find her ultimately.
One April day in 2013, she received an email from a publisher who wants her to translate some Chinese letters and diaries. The publisher used to publish eminent people's biographies but they are thinking biographies of marginal characters who've connections to something big might be more interesting, such as a pile of materials related to a famous Chinese punk musician, spanning twenty years ago and is believed in exiled in some Western countries due to a manifesto delivery in his last concert.
The other materials are from his lover, Deng Mu, who studied in the same university back in the 1990s. She studied Western Literature while Jian studied Chinese History; both have dreams of the future although they share different opinions. Jian is a vigorous youth who's not afraid of showing his emotions through his songs. Mu, on the other hand, thinks there's not much they could do given their country's system of law and it'd land them to nothing but trouble anyway, although she does have that same fiery spirit in her. They often question things like freedom, arts and whether if the latter is necessarily linked to political since they are living in a country which values collectivism. As Jian had written: "art is the politics of perpetual revolution."
As Iona read and translate the materials, she couldn't help but to be swept away by their love story, their pain and their dreams as well; and most of all their individual beliefs, their persistence and the struggles (physically and emotionally) they've gone through even though they are many miles apart. Readers would soon know about Jian's and Mu's fate as Iona unravels more through her translations, googling for more answers and even travelling to places in search of their trails. It is also at this moment she began to think of her own life; how trivial hers seems to be as compared to Jian's and Mu's.
Through Jian's letters and diaries entries, readers also get a gist of his personal history and his views coming from a political family, and how much his family is driven by ideology and revolutionary sacrifices. His father's coldness has cut off every illusion he has in life except of his feelings towards Mu.
"... My last words to you in this letter: whatever happens with your life and my life, I still have this love for you. So now I give it to you, wherever you are. Your Jian" ~ Pg 271
What makes I Am China such an engrossing read is aside from the writing style, Jian's and Mu's voices captured my attention because they transpire this strong individualism yet their love for each other goes beyond all things that separated them. I also liked how Jian's and Mu's stories somewhat juxtapose with Iona's, allowing her for some reflections and made her a different person towards the end.
Beautifully rendered and filled with melancholy, I highly recommend this book if you enjoy reading Chinese history and culture. Even if you aren't into them, simply read it for the writing and the story (this book is longlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction). As you can tell, I loved it so much that I'm going to check out the rest of Xiaolu Guo's releases.